Father named me Kannagi but not once did he use that name. Instead, he drew from a chest full of pet names: gold, diamond, ruby, and so forth. I loved the names more than the actual jewellery. To Mother’s great consternation, I refused to wear jewellery and resisted until I came of age. Mother also complained that I had a runaway mouth. Perhaps she was right. Perhaps I should have started from the beginning
I was born in Kaveri-Poom-Pattinam, also known as Poom-Puhar, but referred to by her inhabitants as Puhar, ancient capital of the glorious and upright Cholan Kingdom.
When the fortune-tellers declared his new-born daughter, Kannagi, would gain fame, Father delighted. Nevertheless, as the celebrations peaked and well-wishers praised his great fortune, the implications of the news seeped in and his spirit waned.
It was bad enough if the son he did not have were to outshine him—but a daughter?
After all, parents nurtured female children only to marry them off to bring good fortune to another house. Moreover, a good daughter-in-law obeyed and respected her husband and her in-laws. Expectations fulfilled did not receive praise but unworthy conduct found its way to the doorsteps of her parents.
It was a loser’s covenant, and not of the kind any shrewd merchant welcomed. And Father was as shrewd as any in Puhar or, for that matter, in all the three kingdoms of Tamilakam: Cholan, Pandyan, and Cheran.
‘Will she excel in music or dance?’ he asked the astrologers and fortune tellers.
Father wondered whether the fine arts might serve as a carriage for my foretold fame. Such education for girls was a preserve of the upper classes of society. As patriarch of one of the foremost families of the mercantile class in Poom-Puhar, Father was also renowned in the royal court of the Great Cholan, Maha-Rajah Kari-Kaalan himself.
The astrologers blamed the stars and the fortune-tellers could not provide specifics.
‘Perhaps,’ said the chief astrologer. ‘Her fame takes root in the west-country and spreads beyond the shores of Bharatham.’
Father turned dark in thought, compelling the men of strange rites and magical words to gather their beads and things mystical, and to slink away in silence.
Aunty Chinnamma, my mother’s younger sister, told me of Father’s reaction to the fortune-tellers’ predictions. She related stories of Father’s unhappiness that his first-born was a girl, would find fame, and so on. My aunty saw herself as the keeper of family secrets.
‘But what good is a secret not revealed?’ she said. And when I spent time with Chinnamma, she was generous with snippets of our family history.
She was close to Mother, and they shared many intimate details of their lives. I found their relationship remarkable but even at my young age, I knew I could never share such privacy with anyone.
Copyright @ Eric Alagan, 2018
Continued on Monday: Betrothed at Birth